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Essential Politics: The final countdown

A woman in a face mask accepts hand sanitizer
Polling clerk Diana Lee, right, distributes hand sanitizer to voters at the Azusa Women’s Club on Oct. 24.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been a long year. But by this time next week, the voting will be over.

It’s not clear when we’ll know which candidates and measures won those votes — whether pandemic-related glitches, cliffhanger results or legal challenges leave some outcomes, not least the contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, up in the air after Tuesday.

But between now and then, there’s an intense week ahead. The Trump and Biden campaigns are making their final pitches to voters. People are lining up for hours to cast early ballots. Times reporters are spread across the country, trying to capture the last days of the 2020 election as they unfold amid a worsening coronavirus contagion.

As we enter the countdown of a historically unusual election, let’s pause to consider where we are and what lies ahead.

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What’s the count so far?

For several weeks, we’ve reported that Americans — including California residents — are voting early in record numbers. Janet Hook described it this week as the electorate’s “great awakening.” A few places show us what that looks like in terms of data.

A statewide ballot tracker created by the research firm Political Data Inc. uses information collected from county elections offices across California. As of Tuesday, more than 7.9 million ballots were returnedmore than half of all ballots cast in 2016.

The nonpartisan U.S. Elections Project offers a broader view. Nationally, their tracker reports 71 million early votes, 47.7 million of which were mail-in ballots. Those votes also represent about half of all ballots cast nationwide in 2016.

So far, most of those early votes are coming from Democrats, and that’s not much of a surprise. My colleague David Lauter has covered this divide over early and mail-in voting extensively: Americans are deeply split over whether and how to take protective measures against the coronavirus and that split follows partisan lines.

How is voting going?

While the surge in early voting was anticipated given the pandemic as well as Americans’ eagerness to cast their ballots, locally run election systems are straining under the weight of high turnout, political disputes and accusations of voter suppression, writes James Rainey.

Those who want to cast their ballots in person are finding long lines at polling stations. Rainey, Benjamin Oreskes and Melanie Mason spoke with L.A. County residents and found that they eagerly lined up in the first days of early voting, fearful that their mail-in ballot might not arrive in time to be counted given reports of postal service cutbacks. Those were concerns echoed by voters in states including Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, Houston bureau chief Molly Hennessy-Fiske reported earlier this month.

In California, there have also been reports of shenanigans involving the drop boxes intended for voters to securely deposit their absentee ballots. Sacramento bureau chief John Myers has been following the dispute between California elections officials and state Republicans over whether the party’s unofficial ballot collection boxes are legal. Separately, law enforcement officers and firefighters have responded to incidents of suspected arson in drop boxes in Baldwin Park and in Boston.

Then we’ve got pre-election drama in the courts. For months, as the pandemic persisted, Republicans and Democrats in battleground states have been arguing about special rules for casting and counting all these early votes. David G. Savage reported two new developments this month, courtesy of a divided Supreme Court. The justices refused to extend the election-day deadline for mail ballots in Wisconsin but rejected an appeal from Pennsylvania’s Republican leaders, who sought to tighten mail ballot deadlines. The Pennsylvania decision leaves in place a ruling that says ballots will be counted as long as they were mailed by election day.

What are the presidential campaigns up to?

The pressure to shore up supporters and win over the few remaining undecided voters is intense. Even after five members of Vice President Mike Pence’s inner circle tested positive for the coronavirus, Pence maintained his schedule of campaign appearances.

Both the Biden and Trump campaigns began the week in battleground states, as Janet Hook and Eli Stokols reported. By Tuesday, however, Biden was confident enough of his lead that he ventured to the traditionally Republican state of Georgia; on Friday he plans to visit Iowa, which Trump won comfortably four years ago, while his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, is scheduled to campaign in long-red Texas.

Trump’s standing has fallen among some of the demographic groups that helped him win in 2016, including seniors and white suburban women. While he has publicly implored women to support him, it’s not clear that his mixture of insults and flattery is working, as Chris Megerian and Stokols wrote this week.

What are we watching for?

Over the past few weeks, reporter Arit John has covered the fears that voters, election officials and other experts have expressed about problems that could arise: postal delays, extremist “poll watchers” (with Megerian), even gun violence.

A new UC Berkeley poll found nearly 9 in 10 likely California voters were worried others wouldn’t accept the outcome, Lauter reports.

Election officials have tried to prepare for possible conflicts on Nov. 3 and beyond. In California, they’ve made contingency plans to avoid the mask-related disputes that some businesses have had to deal with, as Stephanie Lai reports. And there is some legal machinery to help the country navigate disputed results, writes Matt Pearce.

Millie Quan, The Times’ 2020 campaign editor, is trying to prepare for an election outcome perhaps as unpredictable and contentious as the 2000 photo-finish between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when the winner wasn’t clear until a split Supreme Court ruled in mid-December. Times audience engagement editor Adrienne Shih has more about how you can follow our coverage.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— Signature verification is one way election officials verify absentee ballots — and one potential pitfall for voters. Maya Lau and Laura J. Nelson explain how it works.

— The latest polling, from David Lauter: California remains on track to hand former Vice President Biden a victory by the largest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate in state history, the final UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll indicates.

— Falsehoods targeting Latino voters are flying hard and fast in Spanish and English, dividing families, friend groups and communities, report Melissa Gomez and Brittny Mejia.

There’s no “typical” Latino voter, Mejia writes, and the Biden and Trump campaigns are trying to show their understanding of Latinos’ diversity with appeals to specific communities.

The view from Washington

— The Republican-controlled Senate on Monday narrowly confirmed Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, securing a 6-3 conservative majority. No Democratic senator supported Barrett’s confirmation — the first time since the mid-1800s that a Supreme Court nominee has not received any votes from the opposing party, Jennifer Haberkorn writes.

— The first volume of former President Obama’s new memoir is on the way. Times books writer Dorany Pineda writes that excerpts have been released, covering his quest for healthcare reform.

The view from California

— Campaigns on both sides of Proposition 22 have put drivers for ride-share and food-delivery apps at the center of their messaging. The drivers themselves are divided on whether they should be considered independent contractors or employees, Suhauna Hussain and Johana Bhuiyan found. Said one: “I don’t want to end up on the wrong side of it.”

— Passage of Proposition 15, which would levy new property taxes on high-value business property owners, would provide additional funds for K-12 schools and local governments across California. John Myers writes that the question is how much. (Find out more about California’s ballot measures here.)

— L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is a longtime champion for mentally ill defendants. But as she runs for reelection, the question has arisen: do her reforms go far enough? Her critics say no, reports James Queally.

— From Phil Willon: Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday threw his support behind the appeal of a man on death row convicted of murder, arguing in an amicus brief that “racial discrimination infects the administration of California’s death penalty.”

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